Scientists paint the world’s tiniest ‘Mona Lisa’ using strands of DNA

As a Renaissance polymath skilled in painting, science, and engineering (to name just a few of his interests), we think Leonardo da Vinci would have been impressed by a recent project carried out by researchers at the California Institute of Technology. They have taken his iconic Mona Lisa painting, probably the world’s most famous piece of art, and reproduced it at nanoscale using strands of DNA. Sized just 700 nanometers in width, it’s the world’s tiniest ever re-creation of the “Mona Lisa” — which originally measures at 2.53 by 1.74 feet.

“We developed a series of rules for assembling simpler DNA nanostructures into more complex superstructures,” Philip Petersen, a graduate student in the department of biology and biological engineering, told Digital Trends. “Further, [we] demonstrated the applicability of those rules by creating unprecedentedly large DNA ‘canvases’ capable of having arbitrary patterns drawn upon them.”

Lulu Qian, an assistant professor of bioengineering, described it to us as being a bit like a “display for molecules.” There are 8,704 pixels in all, each one about six nanometers apart. These pixels can then be turned on or off to create any pattern. A paper discussing the work was recently published in the journal Nature, titled “Fractal assembly of micrometre-scale DNA origami arrays with arbitrary patterns.”

dna nanoscale mona lisa fractal assembly media 4 highres

While this is, in some ways, more of a fancy tech demo than practical work, it could nonetheless have real-world applications — such as the further development of macroscale devices, which can be precisely controlled at the nanoscale.

“Using the fractal assembly principle, I would like to build a 3D printer that prints billions of devices in parallel and with nanoscale precision,” Grigory Tikhomirov, a senior postdoctoral student who worked on the project, said. “This 3D printing will allow streamlined fabrication of programmable devices from any non-DNA material with arbitrary shape and size in an affordable way, thus overcoming several major challenges in DNA nanotechnology — such as the instability of DNA, limited size, and high cost of DNA-based materials.”

For now, however, it’s best just to marvel at another amazing example of what is possible with modern science. As if the Mona Lisa needed another reason to smirk!

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